If you grew up speaking English, Latin can seem like a half-remembered dream. If you grew up speaking or hearing Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, or Romanian, the dream’s a little more vivid.
But Latin is far from the only language in the Roman noir series. As an educated man and medicus, Arcturus knows Greek. As the half-native son of a native mother, he speaks a version of British. As a detective, he knows the language of dark alleys and desperate men.
Of all the ancient languages spoken up and down the boot of Italia, Latin—the dialect of the Latium region and therefore Rome—survived as Western Europe’s lingua franca for many centuries, the language of law, medicine, and frightened school children repeating “amo, amas, amat.”
Latin beat out Umbrian, Volscian, Oscan and other Italic tongues—and other non-Italic languages like Etruscan—as effectively as Rome dominated the peninsula.
Like most organic languages before and since, Latin changed through the years and between the classes. Classical Latin—the language of Cicero and Caesar—was as different from the common (or vulgar) tongue as ballet is to break dancing. The poet Catullus incorporated street slang into his late first century BCE poetry, and effectively combined the two approaches, which is one reason to like Catullus.
The Latin in the Roman noir series is from the Classical period, avoiding the extremes of Late and Early variations. In the first century CE, the language was experiencing its “Silver Age” of literature, with writers like Juvenal, Martial and the younger Pliny … although no one who was around knew they were in it.
A highly inflected language—which means that each word may carry enough information by itself to tell you how it’s used grammatically—Latin is powerful and succinct, yet sibilant and flexible enough to express every thought from the profound to the profane.
Arcturus speaks a lot of languages—and that’s just when he’s speaking Latin.
On the other side of the continent and the Mediterranean, Greek was the common tongue. It was also the language of scholarship and erudition.
Alexander left large footprints. He also left Greek as the language of commerce for places like Egypt, Cyrenaica and Syria.
Classical Greek is a terribly beautiful and sophisticated language, with a highly developed and specific vocabulary. Many of the more intellectual terms in Latin were borrowed or derived from it. Young aristocratic men with political aspirations or philosophical leanings learned Greek as a matter of course, in the same way that the English and American upper classes used to send their children off to finishing school on the Continent. Greek, in some ways, was the French of Rome.
The Greek in the first century CE is known as Koine or common Greek. It is the Greek of the New Testament, a simpler version than that of Demosthenes or Sophocles. Like the Latin vulgate, it began as the oral tongue of regular people.
Arcturus learned Greek at a relatively early age, and studied with the great Greek herbalist and doctor Dioscorides.
The language of the natives in the Roman noir series is a Celtic tongue, especially common to the tribes in the South and Southeast, but probably understood everywhere on the island.
It was a remarkably persistent language. After nearly four hundred years of Roman occupation, subsequent Saxon invasion, and the development of English, British moved west, preserved in the speech of Cornwall and Wales.
Cornish died out in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries but has been successfully revived. Welsh (Cymraeg), probably a closer cousin and heir to the original native tongue, continues to be the language of music and poetry, of Dylan Thomas and the Eisteddfod.
It is a singularly melodic language, almost melancholy in its haunting beauty.
Native words in the Roman noir series are taken from the Welsh.
One person’s hard-boiled can mean another person’s poached, but I define the style as a lyrical economy of words, a cynical humor, and a certain detached realism that fringes the Romantic.
This is the language—and attitude—of roman (and Roman) noir.
Some of the English in the books—both dialogue or narrative—is raw and unflinching. Euphemistic oaths and clever, innocuous variants on Greco-Roman profanity are not how Arcturus communicates, and a first-person book, after all, is his voice—as translated by the author.
There are words that are considered objectionable in public settings. There are words that are as unpleasant as what they define. But they are honest words, real words, words that were used by Romans and natives and people of every culture, class and educational background.
Otherwise, we wouldn’t know what they mean.